The Pope’s Apology and the Way Forward

Photos by Village Urugwiro

“The first reform,” Pope Francis once said, “must be the attitude.” It seems he’s changing the Church’s attitude toward how it faces reality even when it’s not in its favour.

WHEN reports came out in November last year that the Catholic Church in Rwanda had apologised, I went to read the statement — signed by nine bishops — and my first reaction was to laugh shake my head. It seemed to me, I have to say, as a piece of mockery. Many called it an “empty apology.” I have to agree; it was a deliberate apologia. Even the Government later on rejected it.

At the national dialogue (Umushyikirano) last December, Bishop Philippe Rukamba, made even more shocking remarks. The bishop, who acts as spokesperson for the Catholic institution in Rwanda, said there is no written evidence that the Catholic Church encouraged people to kill; suggesting it would be unreasonable for the institution, as a whole, to apologise. The level of diplomatic talk and aptitude in logical reasoning by Catholic clerics has always amazed me, but that one was too much of unnecessary denial. It was out of line. Nevertheless, the pressure in the room and President Paul Kagame’s intervention was yet an important challenge.

On the other hand, when reports on the meeting of President Kagame and Pope Francis came out on a Monday afternoon last month, my instinct led me to re-read some of the profiles I had read on Pope Francis. There was one particular profile I had not finished (published in a September 2016 issue TIME magazine, before his visit to the U.S.). I felt the need to revisit the stories on the Pope because, I knew, to understand what’s going on, one needs to understand each of the two leaders’ character.

Since becoming Pope in March 2013, Francis (né Jorge Mario Bergolio) has been known for his non-medieval preaching and his charisma. And his ability to change the words without changing the music makes him an exceptional religious leader.

Eearly in his papacy, he elaborated on his thinking on reform and change during an interview with a Jesuit journalist called Antonio Sparado:

Many people think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment. Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later.

The role of the Catholic Church in the Genocide against the Tutsi is well documented. Read every book there is. Although the Catholics have played a pivotal role in rebuilding after 1994 — through education, health, even the economy — many wounds remain unhealed. Numerous churches were sites of mass killing. And as consequence, hundreds of survivors lost faith in an institution which once was a source of hope and a place for refuge.

For the Pope to invite President Kagame to the Vatican and apologise is a milestone that bears humility and inspires a new, forward-looking vision. Of course you don’t invite someone to your place so you can offer regrets — instead, you go find them at their home. But because it’s Pope Francis, nothing is off the table. And, at this point, to imagine a Papal visit in the near future is no way a fantasy.

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